You are here

Preventing Academic Disabilities by Building Kids' Vocabularies

February 18, 2016

The ability to produce and perceive spoken languages is like the foundation of a house—it is the base of all other aspects of language processing. And like the foundation of a house, while a solid foundation doesn't guarantee a solid house, a weak foundation almost always leads to a shaky, unstable house. Building the foundation for language learning is something children do from the moment they are born and continue throughout their lives. 

According to Professor Ben Munson, children with small vocabularies are at risk for developing academic disabilities in their future. Many researchers have examined how to best teach children with small vocabularies more words. Munson and his colleagues are interested in whether building a strong phonological foundation can prevent vocabulary-size deficits in children at risk for small vocabularies, such as late talkers, children with hearing impairment, and children growing up in low-income homes. “I like working with people who have the most to gain and the most to lose,” Munson says.

As a first step toward helping children bulid a strong vocabulary, Munson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are studying relationships among phonological skills and vocabulary growth in preschool children. They are currently finishing up a large longitudinal study of over 200 children that uses a variety of behavioral measures, such as eye-tracking to measure speech perception, acoustic analysis to measure speech production, and nonword repetition to assess phonological awareness. It also collects data on the language children hear in their home environments. The ultimate goal is to build statistical models of relationships between phonology and word learning in the preschool years. The models have the potential to indicate which aspects of phonological knowledge should be improved in children at risk for small vocabularies. In short, this work can help us develop better blueprints for the phonological foundation of word learning.

This project has involved numerous student researchers from the University of Minnesota. Munson has had over fifty students working on research with him, including more than 15 undergraduates. As research assistants, the students get training in the kind of work that they will do in their profession, as well as preparation for grad school, should they pursue that path. The students learn data management and teamwork while working relatively independently.

Munson says his research and teaching intersect often, especially at a doctoral university with highest research activity like the University of Minnesota. “They're both about the creation of knowledge. Teaching forces us to think deeply about the topics we are studying, and the questions from students often spur new research projects,” he says. “Moreover, the reverse happens, too. I can present something in class from my research lab, and it inspires students to think differently from how they would if they just read about it in a textbook."